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Arsenal's decision to loan out Maitland-Niles looks more baffling by the week

Arsenal midfielder Ainsley Maitland-Niles
(Image credit: Getty)

As the market enters its final few days and as the trading gets increasingly frantic, lists of January’s best signings will start to be compiled. They may be based more on expectation than evidence, whereas early movers are starting to assemble a body of work for their new employers. But it can be said in more confidence that one of the first transfers of the window looks like the worst.

Not necessarily for the player or the club who have acquired his services. But letting Ainsley Maitland-Niles join Roma on loan has proved a major misstep by Arsenal. Even their timing was wrong: they could have kept him for another three weeks and then allowed someone else to borrow him. Instead, they lost him for the month when they needed him most.

They let him go before they had signed a replacement; indeed, amid a saga with Juventus over Arthur Melo, they have completed their January games without securing replacements.

To render it stranger, they parted company with Maitland-Niles when it was always evident he would be required. The dates of the African Cup of Nations were no secret; nor were the nationalities of Thomas Partey and Mohamed Elneny. Even the most basic maths indicated that Arsenal started the season with five central midfielders, plus versatile players such as Martin Odegaard, Calum Chambers and Ben White. That was always likely to become three specialists in January. Arsenal then made it two, giving themselves no cover.

So when Granit Xhaka caught Covid again (something that felt more likely given that he had declined a vaccine before he first contracted the virus) and with Maitland-Niles already in Italy, Albert Sambi Lokonga was left as the senior figure alongside the 18-year-old Charlie Patino in the FA Cup at Nottingham Forest. Arsenal duly looked callow as they lost the midfield battle and departed the competition.

Arsenal’s midfielders have contrived to illustrate the need for Maitland-Niles, or a new alternative, with their indiscipline. Their January brought more red cards for midfielders than goals for the whole team. Given Xhaka’s history of erratic decision-making, there was an added case for making sure they were not over-reliant on his availability. Instead, when he was red-carded at Liverpool, Sambi Lokonga was left as a one-man centre midfield.

Xhaka’s month consisted of conceding a penalty somewhat needlessly in defeat to Manchester City, missing the Forest game, getting stupidly sent off after 24 minutes and being banned for the last two matches. Partey’s wasn’t much better. Even the supposed bonus of getting the Ghanaian back from Africa early backfired when, perhaps jetlagged and certainly slow into challenges, he collected two cautions in a 16-minute cameo against Liverpool and joined Xhaka in being banned for the Burnley game. 

Then, with Sambi Lokonga paired with Odegaard, Arsenal ground out a stalemate. Mikel Arteta made a solitary change, with suspensions and loans limiting his options. Perhaps reserves with energy would have helped them break down Burnley. 

To compound matters, Takehiro Tomiyasu has been either injured or semi-fit in the Carabao Cup defeat to Liverpool. Arguably, Arsenal needed not one Maitland-Niles but two, given a versatile player’s ability to operate at right-back. And if Arteta has only really seemed to value the England international as a left wing-back, this has been a sequence of games when could have proved a handy stand-in in other roles. Instead, in four games, Arsenal have exited both cups and seen their hopes of a top-four finish dented.

There should have been a fifth match. Instead the postponement of the North London derby, because Arsenal had insufficient players, highlighted the decisions to loan out Folarin Balogun and Maitland-Niles, damaged the club’s standing amid a widespread perception it was an attempt to exploit and abuse rules and may have led to a change in Premier League regulations.

The other oddity is that one beneficiary of Arsenal’s decision to deplete their own resources was the former Chelsea, Manchester United and Tottenham manager Jose Mourinho. He isn’t someone most Gunners fans would be inclined to do a favour for.

Given Arteta’s propensity for micro-management, the whole affair feels still more inexplicable. Perhaps the end of Arsenal’s window will bring the desired upgrade on Maitland-Niles, but it will not explain why they did not take a common-sense approach for the three weeks and handful of games when he could have had a decisive impact on their season.

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Richard Jolly also writes for the National, the Guardian, the Observer, the Straits Times, the Independent, Sporting Life, Football 365 and the Blizzard. He has written for the FourFourTwo website since 2018 and for the magazine in the 1990s and the 2020s, but not in between. He has covered 1500+ games and remembers a disturbing number of the 0-0 draws.